‘Saving Private Ryan’ is one of Spielberg’s epic war films. It tells the story of a group of soldiers, forced behind enemy lines in order to rescue Private Ryan – whose 4 brothers were all killed in combat. The soldiers immediately question their orders – why risk their lives, for the sake of saving one? Faced with impossible odds, they brave unfeasible conditions in an effort to complete there personal ‘mission impossible’. Released in mid-September 1998, it was a joint production from the well recognised Paramount and DreamWorks pictures.
It is considered by many to be Spielberg’s primary masterpiece – staving off competition from other critically acclaimed films of his such as Jurassic Park, and Jaws. Companied with an all-star cast of actors (Tom Hanks, Matt Damon, Vin Diesel, and Tom Sizemore), the film has achieved much commercial fame – winning 5 academy awards including ‘best director’. In my opinion, these were deserved – the phenomenal attention-to-detail attitude adopted by Spielberg ensured that the film was precise, realistic, and amazing. The duration of the film is 2 hours and 50 minutes; notably long for a war film.
I believe that as a result of this prolonged length, it emphasises the message of the film – war isn’t meant to be glorified; it is long, wearisome, and deadly. This film recognisably breaks the mould of the typical war-film genre – it focuses on realism over fantasy, and as a result of this the film shows the shocked expressions on the soldier’s faces as opposed to highlighting fictional acts of heroism. Spielberg explained that he ‘was looking for realism the whole time’ in this film, and he wished to ‘put chaos up on the screen’.
In my opinion, the jerky, handheld camera movements incorporated into the film achieved this – it was very much ‘like a newsreel cameraman following soldiers into war’, involving the audiences as subtly as possible in an effort to make it even more realistic. In the first scene, the ‘transition from present to past’, we are introduced to a retired former soldier – who we know with hindsight to be elderly James Ryan. In this scene, the mood and setting are established for the rest of the film. The precise camerawork begins with a medium-long-shot of James Ryan, examining the graves of his comrades.
At this point, his identity his unknown to us; the audience is lead to wonder about his significance in the film, and his involvement in the war. The camera then cuts to show a long shot of the American flag – quite an evocative sight, which appeals to the patriotism of the audience. In addition to this, it links a single character with a wider war, as opposed to focusing on individual acts of heroism – something that ‘regular’ war films would not do. This also gives us some insight to the background of Private Ryan – signifying the nations involved.
Following this, there are several passing shots of the graves – this emphasises the casualties, and overwhelms the audience; despite their un-involvement, the loss of so many brave lives is nonetheless emotive. Midway through the scene, fanfare style brass music begins to play. This particular music has military connotations, and is commonly used at funerals of soldiers and other military personnel. The camera then cuts to an close up to James Ryan’s face, slowly zooming in on his eyes – the huge array of emotions he is feeling are quite clearly magnified; the despair, the disgust, the regret.
Also at this point, the volume and tempo of the music increase quite significantly, and war drums begin to play. As a result of this, tension is established which is maintained throughout the opening four scenes. There is a flashback to the beginning of the next scene, as the U. S army prepares to land at Omaha Beach. There is a long shot of the boats approaching the shore, which immediately incites nerves in the audience, as they believe that a mini-climax is drawing near. The camera then pans to a recurrent close up of Captain Miller’s hand, trembling with fear.
I believe that this recurrent image represents the constant that is war – it doesn’t retire; it must be fought out to the end. Soon follows close ups of the soldier’s terrified expressions, and I believe that this represents the fact that, everyone is the same, no on is immune to the horrors of war, no one is so void of fear that they are not frightened of combat. The sound of soldiers vomiting continuously is also present, followed by the frantic issuing of instructions; this emphasises the calamitous un-organisation of the war. All sense of order is lost in the hysteria of the war.
The overall effect of the first scene is to establish a connection between this mysterious James Ryan and D-Day. The date, setting, and fearful atmosphere are also established and the audience is given a cursory introduction to some of the main characters. In the second scene, the ‘instant chaos’ we are introduced to a lengthy sequence in which soldier after soldier is killed, seconds after leaving the sanctuary of the boat. Lives are lost instantaneously, with no progress gained in the overall war effort – which is very realistic in the idea of war.
In the famed Battle of Somme, over 60,000 allied soldiers lost their lives over a stretch of land no larger than 100 metres wide. This scene is very representative in this, and is emotive to even the most hardened war film veteran. The audience are thrown directly into the action, as the camera follows the war from the perspective of a soldier. The first frame shows iron hedgehogs placed throughout the sea – somewhat mimicking the opening scene (replacing the gravestones). This causes the transition from present to past, from calm to hysteria occur all the more smoothly.
Instantly, we are greeted with the sound of gunfire, and indistinct instructions. This high level of sound is a stark contrast from the opening scene and it’s slow, patriotic, brass-based music, emphasising the chaos and pandemonium of the war. The loud, blaring sounds drown out the instructions relayed by the Captain, and this causes the audience to empathise with the soldier’s situation. The desperation and hopelessness of the mission is also emphasised by this lack of organisation.
There are medium and close shots of soldiers being killed – this camerawork brings the audience close to the actions, involving them as much as possible. There are various over the shoulder shots give the German perspective on the hill – showing an advantageous position over the Americans and again emphasising the near-impossibility, against the odds factor of the mission. This emphasises the sheer difficultly of the mission and immense struggle which the soldiers are facing. The soldiers plunge into the sea – looking for safety.
The camera angle shows us the intense struggle of the soldiers both above and below the surface. As the soldiers are immersed in the sea, the sound mutes; again showing the perspective of the soldiers so the audience can experience the horrors of war even more realistically. The lighting in this scene is dull, dark, and lifeless – this reflects the depression of war and is again contrasting from the first scene. In the first scene, there is lots of natural light, and the vision is clear and bright.
In my opinion, this is used to represent the misinformed perspectives of those not involved in war – from the outside it is bright, shiny, and glorious. However, in reality it is nothing of the sort – with the dark actuality of the war breathing through. This precise use of lighting allows the audience to further understand the soldier’s struggle. The use of a tilted frame is also significant – it reflects the carnage and havoc of the war; it is in no way straightforward and uncomplicated.
Following this there is a short sequence where we are introduced to Captain Miller drinking from a metallic flask, and this identifies the main protagonist in the film. The jerky handheld cameras towards the end of the scene where the US soldiers are attempting to reclaim the beach involve the audience in the rush, adding to the general effect of realism. I believe that the overall effect of this scene is to suggest that the Americans are fighting a lost cause, indicating the immense difficulty of the mission.
It aims to bring the audience close to the action through the camerawork and sound effects – contributing to the realism. The sense of confusion and mayhem causes the audience to feel as if no one could survive. In the third scene ‘Captain Miller’s confusion’, we are introduced to the main protagonist (Captain Miller) and the role he plays in the mission. He staggers out of the crimson red sea, stumbling and falling as he does so. This image is quite Christ-like, and is deeply similar to ideas revolving childbirth.
As a result of this, the image of Miller rising from the sea is a much brighter image on deep examination; it shows that perhaps there are some positive results of war. For example, one historian’s theory is that governments plan wars in order to produce a new generation of war heroes – in an attempt to raise a nation’s moral. As he emerges, the camera pans to a close up of Miller, with alternating jerky/slow motion shots of Miller. These slow motion shots can be linked to real-life quite effectively. In traumatic events such as this, everything does seem to go slower, taking a lifetime to finish.
This reproduction of real life through slow motion is a credit to Spielberg’s expertise, and is a clear attempt and success of emphasising realism. The camera switches to an over-the-shoulder shot, and this allows the audience to understand the war from Miller’s perspective and relate to his situation – we see the confusion, the turmoil, and the shock through the expressions in his face. We are re-greeted with a close up of him, emptying the vivid, bloody water from his helmet and replacing it; this makes him look blood spattered.
This gives the audience time to ‘rest’ from the commotion of the war. In this scene, muted sound accompanies slow motion camera shots – seemingly alienating Captain Miller from his surroundings; he cannot do anything to help. As the soundtrack is muted, we hear the agonising cries of the wounded, we can hear them burning, we can hear the final bullets being fired. The muted soundtrack enhances the effect of this – they stand out to the audience. The fact that they can hear the soldiers burning is incredibly emotive – through human instinct, they are desperate to assist in any way they can.
Spielberg is again involving the audience as much as possible in an attempt to contribute to the realism of the film. The camera then pans to a close up of a young soldier screaming desperately at Miller for instructions – again emphasising the futility of the mission; if instructions cannot be relayed, then how can the soldiers possibly succeed? This again leads the audience to empathise with the soldier’s situation – the audience are desperate to assist the young soldier – they can see the terror in his facial features.
Sound then returns; we can hear the soldiers screaming over the numerous explosions and extensive gunfire – and this to me represents the fact that, despite the probability of success being slim to none, there is still a slim hope of survival. Overall, this scene is used to plunge the audience alongside Captain Miller, so we can experience the senseless carnage through the perspective of an experienced recruit. Despite being an experienced recruit however, he is nevertheless shocked beyond belief. As Miller comes to his senses and resumes his responsibilities the audience can reflect through this insight upon the true horrors of war.
The fourth and final scene which I will be analysing is the ‘end of the battle’ scene. We see Captain Miller at rest, and his sergeant, Sergeant Horvath states ‘that’s quite a view’ – a sentiment which is echoed by Miller. There is a close-up of Captain Miller’s hand shaking – mimicking the recurring image from the first scene. We see that, despite the battle being over, the fear remains, and the memories will never evaporate. The camera zooms to an extreme close up of Miller’s eyes – again a media technique which was used previously in the film to show the scene from a soldier’s perspective, and emphasise the emotions they are feeling.
The camera then cuts to show a long shot of vivid red, bloody water running over the corpses of soldiers, and then close ups of soldier’s boots. This gives a personal element to the film – those boots are the boots that the soldiers have had since the beginning, and it shows a sense of belonging. The boots however, cannot be used by a corpse, and so I believe that the boots are subject to a close up as a way or remembering individual soldiers, and their importance to the war.
The camera then pans a a long shot of the lake, and gradually zooms in on the wording on the backpack of one soldier (again giving a personal element). The single word of the backpack is one with huge effect – ‘Ryan’. This relates to the title, and in a way foreshadows the mission – ‘who is this soldier, and why is he important? ‘ The fact that it gradually zooms in is also very significant – the audience don’t know what to expect as they approach the backpack, and the fact that it holds the words ‘Ryan’ is a sort of climax in the scene. Gentle, calming music quietly fades in.
This is very tranquil, following the prolonged exposure to constant explosion, bedlam and devastation. The sombre tone of the music adds to the solemnity of the images, and is a welcome relief for the audience after the exhausting tension of the battle. Overall, this scene is very effective in striking the enormity of the battle; the huge number of casualties and fatalities is shocking and disturbing. The final shot of ‘Ryan’ on the backpack establishes a link between the lengthy battle sequence and the title – as well as clueing the audience in on the nature of the mission.
To conclude, I believe that the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan is incredibly effective in making the film both shocking and realistic. Spielberg stated that he wanted to ‘put chaos up on the screen’ (aforementioned in the introduction) and I believe that he achieved this aim. The ‘instant chaos’ scene is particularly effective in achieving this aim – it involves the audience significantly through the jerky, handheld camera movements and the various sound effects which both contribute to the realistic approach of the film.
In my opinion, I believe this to be a good film, despite not being an advocate of the war film genre. I thoroughly enjoyed it throughout, and I feel that the opening sequence does prepare the audience well for what happens in the rest of the film. By thrusting the audience directly into the action in a way so they feel they are actively contributing to the war effort the audience are lead to brace themselves for the rest of the film.